The House that Pop Built

How do you honor the past when you are trying to live in the present?

By Dulce Zamora

My family and I are in New York. It’s the first time we’re here together since my father-in-law, Rudy (a.k.a. Pop), passed in January. He was 86 years old. We were used to not seeing him for long stretches of time, because we lived far away. When he did come visit, it would be for weeks. So, when Pop died, it was sad, but some part of us — well, me — felt like I’d see him again.

Last week, we stayed at Pop’s house in Brooklyn. He wasn’t at his usual spot on the couch watching TV. He wasn’t around the house trying to fix something. He wasn’t at his place at the head of the table. He was really gone. I couldn’t believe it. How could he just… disappear?

Pop built it all. He was a carpenter. He spent practically every free moment of his life renovating the house. Mama Norma said he knocked down all the walls that divided the common rooms.

One morning, I sat in Pop’s dining room chair without thinking about it. My mother-in-law, Mama Norma, had encouraged me to sit there for breakfast since all the other spots were taken. I was still groggy from sleep. I didn’t know why, but something felt strange. I had never seen the house from that vantage point before. From that seat, I had a panoramic view of the dining room, living room, and kitchen. I noticed the dark brown molding that framed the entire space. I saw the custom closets and shelves that were embellished with stained glass, ornate carvings, or fancy railings. Then, I walked around the house and noticed all of his handiwork.

“Fix the house was all he wanted to do,” my mother-in-law said. “I’d come home tired from working a full day, and he’d expect me to help with the renovation.”

My husband, Noel, also recalled how his dad would expect him and his siblings to be his assistants all the time. “One time he gave me a big sledge hammer and told me to knock down the walls,” said Noel. “I asked him if mom knew about this, but he didn’t say anything. When she came home, she yelled and chased him down the front stairs, throwing dishes as he dodged them.”

Mama Norma can now laugh about the incident, but I wondered what it was like for her to have the ever-present din of construction come to a halt. The silence must be deafening.

Mama Norma said she plans to sell the house, because it’s too big. Then, she hesitated. “He really worked hard,” she said of Pop.

My heart broke. When Noel and I first got married, I found out that Mama Norma expected us to move into the house. She wasn’t being controlling or anything. It was something that many adult children did in the Philippines: Live in their parents’ homes and take care of them in old age. But I made it clear to Noel that I wasn’t following that tradition. Half of my upbringing was in the U.S., and living with parents wasn’t an American custom. Plus, doing something like that just wasn’t who I was. If I did that, I’d only be doing it to please my family. From past experience, doing things only because it was expected of me made me feel depressed and generally unproductive.

Even so, I wanted to tell Mama Norma that we’d move in to take care of her and the house. But I couldn’t do it. I knew it would be a big mistake. How could I live to preserve the dead? I love my father-in-law, and I respect my culture, but I also love and respect myself and my family. I knew this wasn’t the life for us.

Likewise, I am reminded of my relationship with Pop. He didn’t get along with many people, but he always treated me well. One time, while he was visiting us in Singapore, we had a disagreement. He had roundly criticized my husband’s cooking. I told him his son had been excited about making his favorite dish, arroz caldo (rice and chicken porridge). The least Pop could do was be grateful — something I always encouraged my kids to do. Pop donned a slight smile and didn’t say anything. This was unusual for him because he was usually not one to shy away from an argument.

The next day, in an unrelated incident, I decided to confront the property manager of our apartment. After weeks of promises that the head-pounding construction happening upstairs from us would stop, there seemed to be no end in sight. The property manager had been condescending to me and to other female tenants, saying that we needed to get our husbands to talk to him, and that the builders had more rights than we did. I decided to bring the problem to the manager. I brought my then-sick toddlers (who had trouble napping because of the cacophony) to his office. I fed the kids their lunch, and administered their medicine for croup via a nebulizer. I also plugged in an electric screwdriver to demonstrate how bothersome it was to have so much noise around (although the racket upstairs was much worse). The property manager was livid. We exchanged a lot of words. My father-in-law found the whole scene amusing. With a big grin on his face, he opened up the tub of leftover arroz caldo that I had packed for our lunch, got a spoon, and ate right out of the tub. He ate and watched with relish as I argued with the property manager.

Pop always seemed to approve when I stood up for what I believed was right, even when he disagreed with me. I sensed that he respected me for it. A couple of times he even told me that I was a strong woman. In the case of his house, would he be disappointed that I didn’t choose to live in the house he built? Maybe. But somehow I think he’d be okay with my choosing the path that’s best for me and my family. That’s what he did. He left his parents in the Philippines to carve a new life in the U.S. Although he had siblings in California, he decided to raise his family in New York.

I’m not sure what’s to become of Pop’s house. I do know that being in the home he forged with his heart made me think of him more. I think of all the hours he hammered, screwed, sanded, and painted things. I smile at the idiosyncratic details he put in: the wooden reliefs above doorways, the miniature balconies atop columns, and the red eyes on the sculpted lions guarding the house.

Pop wasn’t easy to live with, but I couldn’t help but love him. As a daughter-in-law, I have less claim to him than his wife and children, but I still struggle with how best to honor his life. The best that I think I can do is to build up my family. I may not be a traditional woman, and my tools may not be hammers, screwdrivers or paints, but my mind, heart and spirit can help shape and fortify the lives of my husband and children. Perhaps, when I die, my family will also see the little touches I put into my work. Then, maybe, just maybe, I can also help fulfill Pop’s legacy.

© 2019 Windswept Wildflower

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